In the dugout, in the 12th inning Tuesday night at Nationals Park, as the clock crept toward midnight, Bryce Harper watched. He'd had a front-row seat an inning earlier when Elvin Ramirez, a one-time Washington Nationals' Rule 5 draftee, struck him out on four pitches — and more than one outside the zone.
He walked back to the dugout thinking, "If I go up there again, I'm going to get him."
The Nationals young season, one filled perhaps equally with promise as it has been with injury, has been rife with defining moments. Turn right, and return to the losing ways of the past. Fall out of first place, descend back to the middle or the bottom of the National League East. Turn left, and prove you're a contender.
As Harper's swing connected with Ramirez's 0-2 fastball in the bottom of the 12th inning with the bases loaded, looping it into left field for a 7-6 walk-off win, they turned left.
Ryan Zimmerman, the Washington king of walk-offs, leapt into his arms at first base as Harper became the first teenager to tally a game-ending hit since Gary Sheffield on Sept. 9, 1988 — four years before Harper was born.
In a game that seemingly had turned every other way possible in the 4 hours, 15 minutes prior, when Jesus Flores scampered home with the winning run, Harper pushed the Nationals back into sole possession of first place in the NL East. Once again firmly, loudly, they turned left.
"This team doesn't have any quit in them," said left-hander Ross Detwiler, the pitcher of record in a game he was the least likely to enter. In the 10th inning, with Henry Rodriguez on the mound, Detwiler looked around at an empty bullpen. In the dugout, manager Davey Johnson asked first baseman Adam LaRoche, a one-time college pitcher, if he could pitch if needed.
Whatever the outcome of this game, however long it took, Detwiler knew he was the end of the line.
"It would've been very easy for this team, for the hitters, to just say, 'OK, we'll just go get them tomorrow,'" Detwiler said. "But we weathered the storm, we came back out there and fought."
They'd given back a three-run lead, trailed by a run three different times after the eighth inning, watched the Mets devolve into a comedy of errors with the game on the line and been one hit away from ending it in each of the three innings prior when Harper strode to the plate in the 12th.
The second chance, the one he'd pondered as he walked back to the dugout an inning earlier, was upon him. It got to him only by sheer fate, or ridiculous misfortune for the Mets. Trying to secure a win, needing only three outs to do so for the third time, Michael Morse stroked a double. Ian Desmond, with his third straight game-tying RBI from the eighth inning on, added another double. With the bases loaded, Detwiler worked a 3-2 count and held off, somewhat miraculously, on Ball 4. Xavier Nady narrowly avoided grounding into a double play.
Harper thought about the strikeout. He thought about the long lineout to left field in the ninth, the one four different teammates thought should have ended the game, too, before Vinny Rottino hauled it in at the warning track.
Before he left the dugout, he knew he'd be fine.
"You know," Harper told hitting coach Rick Eckstein as he readied to jump out on deck. "The best advice you've ever given me is, 'All the pressure's on that pitcher in that moment. In every moment.'"
Ramirez's second pitch to Harper was a called strike. A fastball. Low, middle-in. Harper wasn't about to let another one go by. He threw his hands at it, tried to push it to left field. Seconds later, Zimmerman was in his arms. His teammates mobbed him. Another first crossed off.
"The kid's a gamer," Desmond said. "He's unbelievable. One of the best players I've ever seen to be honest."
"Oh my gosh, that was unbelievable," Harper said of the moment before lamenting his 2-for-7 night that included two strikeouts before his 12th-inning heroics.
It was not a well-played game, for either side, particularly so for the Mets who committed three errors and stoked a Nationals rally with two errors, a bobble, a wild pitch and an ill-timed walk in the 10th. But the opportunity was ever-present. In the end, an ugly game turned beautiful for the Nationals.
"There were opportunities tonight to come up clutch and I didn't come up clutch," Harper said. "[But] that moment, at the end, I think that wipes everything away."
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